There is one victory Out-of-Door Academy can point to from last season — even as Out-of-Door piled up its most wins in the program’s young history — as evidence for why 2016 was special.
Feb. 17. The day the Thunder beat Cardinal Mooney. Not only had ODA never beaten the Cougars — it had never even come within 10 goals of Mooney.
“It was a good season for us,” head coach Phil Meyer said. “We’d done a lot of things that we had never done.”
Not on the list: Beating Cardinal Mooney in the District 17 championship. After beating the Cougars during their first meeting in February, the Thunder fell to Mooney later during the regular season and then again, 16-7, in the district championship to once again miss a spot in the Florida High School Athletic Association championships tournament.
It was a good season for us. We’d done a lot of things that we had never done.
Phil Meyer, Out-of-Door Academy head coach
It has made setting goals for 2017 easy at ODA. Even before they say they want to win a district title and make a run into the postseason, Out-of-Door’s players say they want to beat Cardinal Mooney, the persistent power of the region. For the first time, the Thunder go into the season, which begins Wednesday with a district game against Saint Stephen’s in Bradenton, with realistic reason to think it could finally cross the threshold.
“It was like a bunch of individuals,” said junior Ian Martin, who started playing for ODA as a freshman in 2015, “as we’ve gotten better, we play as a team now.”
Three years before Martin began at Out-of-Door, and even a year before Meyer joined the program as an assistant coach in 2013, the Thunder’s current senior class suited up as the youngest members of the first team in ODA history.
Defenseman McCabe Ballance was one of those seventh graders who needed a spring sport to play when he wasn’t busy with football. Former head coach Jamie Carver wanted to make lacrosse that offseason option.
Those first seasons were unsurprisingly underwhelming. Only a handful of players had any experience with lacrosse and most of them moved away or transferred to IMG Academy before they were seniors. The rest of the team were athletes learning on the fly.
“We were just kind of there to get them the ball,” Ballance said.
It’s taken almost half a decade, but now the foundation built in 2012 has created the potential for success. Out-of-Door won 14 games last spring, including victories against the Cougars and Sarasota Riverview. Most of last year’s team is back, too, including Martin, the Thunder’s leading scorer a year ago, and defenseman Dakota Dickerson, a junior who has a chance to bet ODA’s first Division I player.
From a pure talent standpoint, Out-of-Door has its best roster yet and the personnel fits with the uptempo system Meyer runs. Dickerson and another defenseman last year combined to score five goals on their own — a particularly difficult feat in a sport where defensemen are almost always confined to one side of the field.
“We like to score fast,” Ballance said, “play defense fast.”
In its final scrimmage of the preseason against Oviedo Hagerty on Saturday, the Thunder put some of its transition prowess on display. Dickerson, who has also played long-stick midfield, scooped up a ground ball and blew past the defender trying to halt him. He crossed the midfield line and ran a two-man fast break with Martin, setting the attack up for a goal.
The biggest difference now, Ballance says, is the roster is deep enough that ODA can play as a more cohesive unit. Every player has competent stick skills, meaning the burden doesn’t fall on any individual player.
“It really just started from a team of kids that wanted to do something in the spring,” Ballance said, “to an actual full lacrosse team that is playing as a unit, in unison, as a family. As it’s grown, the culture has grown.”